DemDaily: The First Lady From Plains

November 21, 2023

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter passed away Sunday, leaving a remarkable legacy and indelible mark on our nation's history.

A recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, she was a great humanitarian in her own right -- a passionate public servant and advocate of mental health reform, caregiving, and equal rights for women, who transformed the role of First Lady.

Rosalynn broke barriers as one of our country's most influential presidential spouses -- serving as her husband's closest political partner and policy adviser throughout their remarkable 77 years of marriage.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.” - President Jimmy Carter

Dubbed "Steel Magnolia" by the press, Rosalynn was known for her genteel southern charm and compassionate demeanor, which masked a flinty determination and "tough as nails" interior that sometimes elicited comparisons to Eleanor Roosevelt.

That foundation was forged out of her upbringing in the small, tight-knit community of Plains, Georgia. Born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in 1927, her childhood was marred by poverty; after her father's death when she was 13, she worked as a dressmaker with her mother to help support the family and raise her three younger siblings.

Rosalynn graduated valedictorian of her high school and went on to earn an Associate's Degree from Georgia Southwestern College in 1946. It was during that time that she fell in love with Plains neighbor Jimmy Carter, who was attending the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. After their first date, Jimmy told his mother that he had met the woman he was going to marry. The future president later said, "The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosalynn. That's the pinnacle of my life."

In 1953, after numerous military assignments and the births of three sons, the Carters left the Navy and moved back to Plains, when Jimmy inherited the family's peanut farm from his father. It was there, in 1962, that they launched Jimmy's political career with his election to the Georgia State Senate.

Jimmy invariably credited Rosalynn with his political successes -- she was the driving force in all of his elections, including his 1970 election as Governor of Georgia.

Rosalynn, who had also given birth to their only daughter, Amy, three years earlier, shone as First Lady of Georgia. Inspired by a cousin's struggle, she began what would become a lifelong mission to destigmatize and raise awareness of mental illness that would earn her enduring national recognition. As part of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Service for the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, she toured the state and helped establish 134 day-care centers for the state’s mentally disabled residents, including children.

As her husband's top political advisor and surrogate during his 1976 presidential campaign, Rosalynn campaigned tirelessly in 42 states, earning her the title of Jimmy's "secret weapon."

In the White House, Rosalynn revolutionized the office of First Lady, becoming the first to work out of the East Wing, and to hire a chief of staff equal in rank and salary to the president’s own.

Hardworking and hands-on, Rosalynn attended Cabinet meetings and major briefings, and represented the Chief Executive at ceremonial occasions. She regaled in hosting 750-person state dinners, while also serving as the President’s personal human rights emissary to foreign countries, including in Latin America -- for which she learned Spanish.

Rosalynn was credited as a major influence when her husband brokered the Egypt-Israel peace talks and landmark Camp David Accords in 1978, and testified before Congress to advocate for improved mental health reform in 1979.

After two years at the White House, Time magazine called her the "second most powerful person in the United States." Even when her husband's approval ratings sank to record lows, Rosalynn still tied with Mother Teresa as the most admired woman in the world.

“I can’t tell you how important she was,” President Carter’s former Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan once said.“People who really know the Carters say you never knew quite where Rosalynn stopped and Jimmy began.”

Jimmy's decisive 1980 loss to Republican Ronald Reagan was said to be far more devastating to Rosalynn than the president, who had always said she was the "most political" of the two.

“The first lady role has changed. I don’t think there will ever be another first lady who will be just a hostess and pour tea.” - Rosalynn Carter

Life after the White House was no less active for the Carters, who channeled their energy into the establishment of The Carter Center, a non-profit organization they founded to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope.” The Center's work to resolve conflict, promote human rights, improve global health, and build democracy has spanned more than 65 countries.

In 1984 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter began their long association with Habitat for Humanity, building more than 4,000 homes for the needy around the world.

The same year Rosalynn released her memoir, First Lady from Plains, which became a #1 bestseller. It was one of five books she would author, including Everything to Gain with Jimmy in 1987.

She continued to champion the causes of mental health reform and human and women's rights, speaking and hosting national and international conferences through the early 2000s. She also devoted time to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, to help families and professional caregivers living with disabilities and illnesses.

Rosalynn and Jimmy, who celebrated their 77th wedding anniversary in July, were the longest-married presidential couple in American history.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented both Carters with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, for their humanitarian work.

“Rarely do we honor two people who have devoted themselves so effectively to advancing freedom in all those ways,” said Clinton. “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the Earth.”

May we all be thankful for those who have inspired us in life. Happy Thanksgiving! DemList will return on Monday, November 27.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: CNN, ABC, LATimes, NPR, Carter Center, Washington Post, Biography, KansasPress, White House

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